'The Ultimatum' Is Netflix's Most Surreal Dating Experiment Yet

For fans of mess.

the ultimatum, jake and april
These poor people have no idea what's coming for them. | Netflix
These poor people have no idea what's coming for them. | Netflix

Watching the latest reality dating series The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On feels illegal, masochistic, like it should have never been made at all. And yet, the drama is irresistible, a front-row seat to a type of couples’ counseling that medical practitioners would be accused of violating HIPAA regulations if the tapes of their closed-door sessions made it out into the world. Like former 98 Degrees member and host Nick Lachey tells the 12 poor saps who signed up for The Ultimatum—which dropped its first eight episodes on Wednesday with the last two coming April 13—right before unleashing emotional chaos, you might think you know where things will go over its 10 episodes, but I promise that you don’t.

To back up for a moment for those confused about what The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On is all about: Well, it’s right there in the title. In the show’s six couples, all of whom are in relationships averaging two years, one of them wants to marry their person yesterday, and the other does not, for one reason or another. The former issued a marriage ultimatum and somehow convinced the latter to go on The Ultimatum—run by married people Nick and Vanessa Lachey, now Netflix’s house hosting duo after two seasons fronting fellow batty Netflix dating series Love Is Blind—where they “put their relationship to the test,” as these things often do. (Netflix already has a second season on deck featuring an all-queer cast—a first for any of its in-house dating shows.)

If this sounds like USA’s Temptation Island, which basically lets couples flirt and hook up with eager hot singles on a beach before deciding if they’ll stick with the person they came with or not, you’d be right. But the producers of this “experiment”—as Netflix likes to call its high-concept, pressure-cooker studies of human nature using lovesick people as its lab rats—came up with a knife twist of a way to tweak that format: The couples aren’t separated and presented with a lineup of new coeds to gawk at, no, no, no. Their distractions are each other—as in, yes, the other couples. For the whole first week, during which the Lacheys have blessed them all newly single, they have to mingle with everyone else while watching their partner mingle with everyone else to pick a new person to live with for three weeks. After that, they’ll switch back and live with the person they came with for the remaining three weeks before having a Final Talk that could end in an engagement—the goal for the ultimatum issuer, of course—or their serious relationship of many years to immolate on the spot, either leaving alone or arm-in-arm with the person they just met.

This, obviously, turns the somewhat cheeky, don’t ask/don’t tell hall-pass premise of Temptation Island into a mindfuck minefield, both for the participants (a cruel game of watching your recent ex, technically, have fun with another potential lover while you’re also supposed to be having fun) and the viewer (who came with who again?). It doesn’t take long for the emotional pot to boil over, leading to a selection dinner for the new pairings that’s so tense that it’ll make your skin crawl and so full of irrational decision-making that you’ll want to pluck your own eyes out of your skull.

A few of the ultimatum givers—chiefly April, 23, refers to herself in the third person, deserves better; and Colby, 25, absolutely awful, can sleep on concrete—go into the show with an impressive level of confidence that their other half—Jake, 26, fuckboy fundamentalist; and Madlyn, 24, seek help—will come around by setting them free. Some couples face issues that, in my opinion, seem unworthy of an ultimatum; for example, Alexis, 25, pot-stirrer, and Hunter, 28, ostensibly nice guy, are stuck between the reasonable next step of living together versus going all in. Others harbor fundamental problems—Lauren, 26, does not want children, and Nate, 30, desperately wants them for selfish reasons—or appear so oddly mismatched in the first place—Rae, 24, sensitive sweetie pie who likes to stay in, and Zay, 25, club promoter who posts thirst traps on Instagram for “business reasons”—that you’re practically rooting for them to call it and carry on with someone else from the cast pool.

The Lacheys do their best to assuage the couples’ queasiness about the experiment: In the first episode, Vanessa addresses her on-and-off relationship with Nick that gave them the strong foundation they have today to show off for the couples embarking on their ultimatum journey, an intimate sharing that casts a safe-space perimeter around the whole production. The cast, who almost all seem to have gone to therapy before, reciprocates in kind. They talk openly about their feelings, insecurities, fears, frustrations, and desires in shades that, once again, play out like insights none of us should have access to in such a public sphere, yet there’s an overlying self-awareness and openness in these conversations that feel refreshing for the genre. I guess that’s just the power of The Ultimatum.

Personally, I cannot understand what drives someone to the point of demanding marriage (in this economy??) nor deciding the only way to reach consensus on such a major decision is to go on a reality show about it. Though, to the participants’ credit, none of them could have anticipated the fallout of their choice to be so agonizing, so turbulent, so cringey. By the time the penultimate episode rolled around, I thought I had everyone pinned down from their carefully edited oversharing, cute moments spent with new people, and terrible blowout fights with their original significant other, only for the proverbial rug to be fully pulled out from under me and screaming at my TV. I hate it. I can’t wait for the finale.

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Leanne Butkovic is a senior entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.